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The Evolution of  Ice Rinks & their Technology

Whether you skate in a professional sport such as ice hockey or enjoy a casual recreational skate, the evolution of ice rinks is fascinating.  Did you know the first ice rink was made between 1841-1844 when refrigeration technology didn’t exist yet?  They got creative and made them with a salt and hog lard blend.  As you can imagine, this type of rink quickly lost popularity, and thankfully within 30 years, refrigeration technology was not available.  Throughout this article, I will discuss ice rinks and how they operate today. 

Henry Kirk and William Bradwell, in 1841built the first artificial ice rink surface located in the seed room grounds of a nursery by Dorset Square which encompassed about a 12 x 6 area in the Egyptian Hall on Baker Street known as the Glaciarium in London. They used a mixture of alum, lard, salt, and sulfur, and although it looked great, it gave off a terrible smell.  For about three years, they tried again and, this time, built a second rink on Grafton Street made of soda.  Since the Glaciarium’s appeal lost its luster quickly, the venue was renamed the Glypotheka and is now a place to sell paintings.

Around thirty years elapsed, and then a man named W.A. Parker pioneered a process to make ice with carbonic acid and brine they believed would be able to handle the sharp skate blades that came in contact with it—soon after, in the 18070’s William Newton created an ice rink in New York using carbonic acid, ammonia gas, and ether to develop the artificial ice, which also didn’t last long.

Bouncing back to the UK, John Gamgee got an idea for an ice skating rink, and he opened Glaciarium 2.0 in a canvas shed with a 24 x 16 ice surface area.  This rink used a steam engine to power a heat exchanger to use sulphuric acid to cool the glycerin.  The process was to pump the glycerin through pipes in the ice to keep it frozen.  The shed he built was insulated with concrete, dry earth, cow hair, and tar.

Now they started to make progress, and soon Garciarium 3.0 version, also devised by John Gamgee, was located behind an old Clock-House on Kings Road in Chelsea, having an area of 40 X 24, a 5-foot ceiling which opened in 1876.  Later that same year, a second rink was built in Charing Cross, and the December issue of “The Times” reported. I quote, “T3090 square feet of solid and transparent ice may be seen and used at the floating swimming baths on the Thames at Charing-cross, by the special permission of the Metropolitan Board of Works. The public has shown that they fully appreciated swimming in the Thames in summer, but the winter months found the floating structure empty. If the equally delightful pastime of skating can be secured when bathers fail, a perennial attraction will be provided on the Thames Embankment... The floating baths were handed over to Mr. Gamgee on the 20th of October last. Within two months, two complete sets of machinery, with all the accessories necessary for a Glaciarium, have been satisfactorily erected. The general principles of the floating Glaciarium are similar to those at Chelsea... They consist of the circulation of a current of glycerin and water through a series of metal tubes immersed in water, which is converted into ice and maintained in that condition. The details, however, are different. There are two ice machines with the necessary engines, one at each end of the structure. Each machine absorbs over 100,000 heat units per hour, and it is stated that this immense effect is obtained by utilizing about six-horse power per machine—the water of the Thames at a temperature of about 40 or 42 deg. Fahrenheit, pumped freely through the condenser, maintains the pressure in the machine at a minimum of one atmosphere and three-quarters, whereas the pressure in the refrigerator is only nominal and corresponds to the temperature of about 0 Fahrenheit. A rotary pump drives about 4,000 gallons of glycerin and water per hour through each refrigerator. This cold liquid traverses through the tubes of the Glaciarium, and the water outside them is thoroughly frozen. The special difficulties in maintaining congelation at the Charing-cross baths arise from the great radiation from the iron structure, which is caused by its immersion in the waters of the Thames and by the extensive area of glass roof covering the whole in, which greatly raises the temperature of the internal atmosphere and is antagonistic to the development of artificial refrigeration. However, the desired result has been attained, and on our visit to the Glaciarium yesterday, ice two inches thick was already formed and was skated upon by two ladies in the first instance."  They called this place the Crystal Ice Rink of England.

As you would imagine, this inspired many people to copy what he did, and they were located in Manchester and Southport.  Later that same year, the Manchester Rink opened and stayed in operation for about a year, and the Southport existed for around ten years till people stopped supporting the facility, and it had to close. In 1894 The Palais de Glaces in Paris opened its doors, then by the National Skating Palace on the Palladium site in London.  Unfortunately, Author Nigel Brown’s Book in 1959 entitled  "Ice-Skating: A History" explained, "During this early stage excessive dampness and thick impenetrable mist pervaded these experimental ice-rinks and was the principal reason why their life was short. Skaters found them unhealthy places. But real improvements were made in the nineties, and good ice in comfortable conditions was now possible. The big capitals, London, Paris, and New York, had two rinks, and Brighton, Brussels, Munich, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Brooklyn. All these ice palaces were initially much frequented, for they were something new in entertainment, and the general public invaded them when the craze began. But this raised a problem for the serious skater, for crowded rinks gave him little chance to practice his figures. This was the main reason the Prince's Skating Club in London emerged. It was a long hall in Knightsbridge with a sheet of ice 200 feet long and 50 feet wide, exclusively for members’ use; the public was not admitted. At Prince’s, the elite off-English skaters went through their paces."

Like the steam engine, they used sulphuric acid in Gamgee's rink and pumped as his progress continued to evolve.  Synthetic ice rinks are still in use in non-ordinary places, Brazil, Kenya, Egypt, and even on cruise ships on the high seas.

Now that we know where ice rinks came from, let’s talk about how today’s ice rinks are made.  First, two types of temporary rinks are made by putting down a platform and adding a mat of specially designed plastic ice tubing.  If it is a permanent ice rink structure, pipes are installed in concrete.  The next step is to fill the ice mats or the tubes with a chemical called antifreeze called glycol because plain water would freeze solid and split the installed tubes or pipes.  The unique thing about glycol is that it remains liquid even after several degrees below-freezing temperatures.  A unique three-hundred-and-sixty chiller takes about five seconds to reduce the glycol temperature pumped into the ice mats or pipes.  At this point, the ice mat or concrete floor with the lines below it is a super cold radiator.  Then to make the ice, one needs to add water will freeze from the bottom up without air bubbles.

Once the first layer dries up, it’s time to return and put another layer of ice.  Thus they build up the ice in a series of just under an inch layers of thirty layers of ice.  When it gets too cold, one can’t add water, or the air will freeze the water before the mats or pipes do, resulting in bubbles forming in the ice.  When the temperatures are this cold, they have a plan B to mist the ice, which unfortunately takes much longer.

After all this work and many challenges, one more has to be resolved, as no professional ice hockey team wants to skate on pink ice.  Thus, they paint the ice with water-based paint that freezes in place.  Lastly, the game markings need to be added and then covered with another two layers of thin ice. Many markings come premade as paper sheet transfers; others must be painted on the ice.

Now you know where ice rinks originated and how they evolved today, as many hours of engineering and hard work go into building temporary or permanent ice rinks.  Remember the next time you visit one to appreciate all the time and dedication that went into making the floor of ice.


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